The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is requiring online therapy company BetterHelp to pay $7.8 million to consumers in a settlement over alleged data mishandling between 2017 and 2020. This marks the first proposed FTC order that would compensate consumers whose health data was compromised.
According to the FTC, BetterHelp assured customers that it would not share their health data except for the purpose of providing counseling. But the FTC alleged that BetterHelp shared customer emails, IP addresses and health questionnaire responses with advertisers like Facebook, Snapchat and Pinterest.
“The FTC alleged we used limited, encrypted information to optimize the effectiveness of our advertising campaigns so we could deliver more relevant ads and reach people who may be interested in our services,” BetterHelp wrote in a statement. “This industry-standard practice is routinely used by some of the largest health providers, health systems, and healthcare brands.”
Customers who used BetterHelp between August 1, 2017 and December 31, 2020, when these advertising practices were in effect, will be eligible for partial refunds.
“When a person struggling with mental health issues reaches out for help, they do so in a moment of vulnerability and with an expectation that professional counseling services will protect their privacy,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “Instead, BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit.”
BetterHelp said it has never received payment from any third parties for information about its customers.
The FTC’s proposed order also requires BetterHelp to limit how long it can retain customer data and ask third parties to delete consumer health data that they shared. BetterHelp is also ordered to obtain express consent before disclosing customer health information to third parties, and to develop a more comprehensive privacy program.
“This settlement, which is no admission of wrongdoing, allows us to continue to focus on our mission to help millions of people around the world get access to quality therapy,” BetterHelp wrote in its statement.
Therapists — if you can even find one that takes your insurance or new clients — can add a layer of sadness to your wallet even as you’re trying to rectify your own mental health wobbles. ShareWell believes it has an alternate take, with a far more affordable peer-support model, which lands it somewhere between special interest forums and online communities, coaching and therapy. The company’s thesis is that people who are in the same proverbial boat can offer each other support (but, emphatically, not advice!) to alleviate the burden of going at it alone.
“I started ShareWell because peer support really helped me in what was probably the most difficult phase of my life,” said founder and CEO CeCe Cheng in an interview with TechCrunch. “During the pandemic, I was in what I would call an emotionally abusive relationship. I had a therapist I was working with and she was really helpful, but when I was going through it, I didn’t really want to talk to my friends about it. I felt a lot of shame; sometimes even the best-meaning friends couldn’t exactly understand what I was going through.”
Cheng set out to put together a better solution for that, to battle her own isolation in her experience, but also to create a tool for people to lean on each other using modalities that already exist. She points to other successful peer-based support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
A Sharewell session in progress. Image Credits: ShareWell.
“I looked online, and it was shocking how little I could find; I found dead links, a lack of information, and frustration,” says Cheng. “Often, there was just a zoom link that you joined at a certain time and you hoped that other people showed up. Sometimes it was three people that showed up; other times there were 20. It just didn’t feel very safe. I did find some Reddit forums and Facebook groups, which I thought was pretty shocking at this day and age, that there wasn’t a better place to go.”
People need all the help they can get. The pandemic aggravated an already critical mental health crisis, triggering a 25% increase in depression and anxiety nationally while 77% of Americans live in counties where mental health care is hard to access. The company wants to offer an alternative, with live human support that is effective, affordable and accessible.
ShareWell told TechCrunch it raised a $1.3 million pre-seed round, which it says includes investments from Adrian Aoun, CEO and co-founder of Forward; Kyle Vogt, co-founder of Twitch and CEO and co-founder of Cruise; Russell Simmons, former CTO and co-founder of Yelp; Margo Georgiadis, former CEO of Ancestry.com; Charlie Cheever, former CTO and co-founder of Quora; Rob Hayes, first investor in Uber; and Quiet Capital.
Personally, I’m skeptical about turning to the internet for help and advice, given the general quality of information that is available online, but Cheng assures me the company has thought about safety from the bottom up.
“We built a video and community platform with our own safety features. For the video sessions, we have the rule of three, which means that every virtual session requires a host and at least two attendees for the session to start. If at any time a person drops out and it goes below three, everyone goes into a waiting room,” says Cheng. “The site prohibits one-on-one communication anywhere, which in itself limits abuse cases. We also have sitewide blocking; if there’s something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can block someone and you will never be in a session with them again, you will not see their forum posts; they are fully blocked. There are also reporting and flagging features everywhere. We also have a rating feature for hosts and for sessions. Bad actors will be flagged, blocked and reported, and if that happens multiple times, the team steps in. We haven’t actually had to do that, as the community is regulating itself.”
The company’s special sauce is in how it thinks of the peer group system, and the accompanying rules. The key aspect is to share your own experiences only, rather than giving advice to the other people on the call.
“We define peer support as the sharing of experience, not advice. That is the number one most important rule in our community guidelines. We are here to share experience and to support each other. We can relate to things that we’ve learned from our personal or professional experiences, but it is against the rules to give advice, to diagnose, etc.,” Cheng says. However, she also says that nobody from ShareWell is actively monitoring sessions in progress. “Anyone can create and host a peer support session after they’ve attended one session on the platform. We have a lot of host training materials, and we support the hosts.”
The company told me that in instances where someone is clearly struggling and in need of professional help, the hosts were not allowed to encourage someone to seek the assistance of a therapist or other professional.
“Right now [asking someone to seek professional help] is frowned upon, because that crosses a line of giving advice, but if I saw someone who I felt needed therapy, I would probably talk about my own experience about how therapy really helped me get through certain things,” Cheng said. “In the future, we think that we will be able to refer people to modalities beyond peer support. We see already that people want coaching and therapy, etc., but we see peer support as the home base of the community, and from there we connect people to resources outside ShareWell.”
Between one-to-one therapy and free online forums, people search for a range of solutions to mental health therapy online. Especially since the pandemic increased anxiety and depression rose by 25% globally (according to WHO) and also deepened an epidemic of loneliness.
Among players in the online group emotional support space there is Pace (which raised $14.9M), Grouport (raised $1.5M), and Quilt.
Circles, a platform for online group emotional support, joined the fray in 2020, and has today raised $16.5 million in a Series A round led by Zeev Ventures. Also participating was Lior Ron, Head of Uber Freight, along with existing investors NFX, Flint Capital, and Sir Ronald Cohen.
With Circles, subscribers talk about life challenges such as divorce, grief and infertility, meeting weekly via group video chat to give and receive emotional support. Circles says the process is guided by “trained and vetted” mental health professionals.
Circles claims it fills the market gap between ‘therapy and Facebook groups’ by combining professionals with the support of peers going through the same experiences, and is also available on an app, which likely aids user retention.
Irad Eichler, co-founder of Circles said in a statement: “With this new round of funding, we’ll strengthen our matching technology to match with more accuracy, increasing each group’s predisposition for success.”
Eichler previously founded “Shekulo Tov,” a nonprofit organization that assists the mentally handicapped integrate into society. He claims 70-75% of Circles’ members use the platform at least once a week and 30% use it daily.
“Circles is addressing a gap in the market with the powerful yet simple principle of human connection. Propelled by leadership with proven experience in successful social impact initiatives, Circles has positioned itself to be a market leader,” commented Oren Zeev, of Zeev Ventures.
Media and games helped many of us maintain our mental health during the last couple years of dread, but it isn’t just pure escapism: studies suggest games in particular provide unique therapeutic benefits. DeepWell is a new startup from games and medical industry veterans that aims to study and formalize these effects, so in addition to medication and therapy, you might be prescribed a nightly Stardew Valley session.
For some, the notion of using games as therapeutic techniques may seem slightly outlandish. Can fighting monsters and poring over character stats really affect your mental health? But for others, myself included, it’s obvious — after all, many of us quite consciously turned to games as ways to keep ourselves grounded when all that awaited us out of doors was disease and dread. An hour or two of minding the farm, blasting hellspawn, or questing with friends was an important part of our self-care routine.
Studies bear this out in various ways: playing a game can offer simple distraction, sure, but it also allows for more complex behaviors to be tested out or experienced in a safe and controlled manner. There just isn’t an organized way to track and understand these benefits in a way that might be accessible as a form of actual health care. That’s what DeepWell is meant to be.
I talked with Mike Wilson, co-founder of indie publisher powerhouse Devolver Games, and Ryan Douglas, who has studied and shipped numerous medical devices, about this endeavor of theirs. Wilson said he was (after attempting to retire) trying to figure out how his network and expertise in the gaming industry could be directed towards making things better.
“That’s how the talk started, about digital interventions that might assist someone… just, how do we help people? Ryan started doing some real research, and the research kept coming back that games — not like apps or therapeutic experiments, just games — can be therapeutic,” he told TechCrunch. ” When we realized that so many games that are already out, and have been studied, are therapeutic on their own just by the very nature of their design, that’s when it got real.”
Douglas was quick to point out that no one is suggesting that games are going to cure someone’s depression or anxiety.
“We’re definitely adjunctive therapy — we’re here to support the therapists,” he said. “But we were in a mental health emergency before the pandemic,” when something like 12 percent of people self-reported mental health issues. The number is now closer to 44 percent, he said, and not likely to go back down any time soon. Not only are there not enough therapists, but many people can’t afford the cost. Alternative and preventive therapies are crucial if we’re to mitigate the crisis and avoid a new one. For that to happen we need to consider all possible avenues — and gaming, as one of the most popular forms of leisure, should be a part of that.
“There are some principles of therapy that are just really well done in games,” continued Douglas. “Like roleplay — gaming is wildly successful at that. Movement, biofeedback, simulation, recognition. You could gain agency or self actualization, or maybe just distraction — the overlap between CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] and gaming is profound. We have the opportunity to take advantage of what games have already been doing, the way you make new thought pathways, and make those your preferred pathways.”
In other words, what if therapy was as fun as Fortnite? As Wilson and Douglas began to look into this more seriously, they found the idea resonated with many people in both the gaming and medical industries. Already dozens of people in both have volunteered their time. “Devin, the lawyers have been working for free. That’s how I knew we were onto something,” said Wilson.
DeepWell cofounders Mike Wilson (left) and Ryan Douglas.
The self-funded and still early stage DeepWell will act in two roles: as a certification and recommendation body, and as a game publisher itself.
In the first role, it hopes to work with other developers and publishers to formalize the studies and effects from their games. For example, if a game like Animal Crossing were to be shown to help people with social anxiety or agoraphobia, that information shouldn’t be buried in a journal article — but it also wouldn’t really be Nintendo’s role to make that claim. Instead, DeepWell would vet and organize the information, offering a certification documenting the process.
“We’ve had to be careful about this, and quiet, because this is a bigger and more complex deal than a typical entertainment company — there’s a lot more to consider here both ethically and legally,” said Wilson.
Exactly what the certification would be is still being worked out; it depends on how regulators want to define this, what therapeutic effect is achieved, and so on. The goal would be to have certification help effective games be classified as medical devices. There’s already plenty of software out there used for treating various conditions, but these titles or digital experiences tend to be purpose-built for therapeutic use rather than the effect being secondary to the entertainment value.
Douglas said that the research quickly showed that many games already have therapeutic effects, but that software designed to have the same effect tends to lack game-like qualities that make people want to engage with them. “These need to be great games first, and lean enough that we can actually sell them as video games.” he said.
The second role is where DeepWell aims to bridge that gap. Like Devolver, they’ll work with independent game studios, but instead of trying to find the next big indie hit, they’ll look for games that produce the kind of effect they’re looking for. Though the company’s first game is too early in development to discuss in detail, Wilson said that the idea is to identify what’s therapeutic about ordinary games and double down on that without compromising playability.
“As designers, we know how to get the attention, we know how to hold the attention; and where we’re headed is, we’ll be able to turn what was what we would call a sustained experience into sustained therapy,” said Lorne Lanning, creator of the Oddworld series and one of many creators who have signed on as advisors and collaborators.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean “sunshine and rainbows,” added Douglas. “It might be someplace darker, but where you can feel agency. There’s no reason you can’t use a shooter, or horror, because that’s what people might connect to.”
Just as some people seek fluffy rom-coms to escape their stress, while others pick gritty crime dramas, the content needs to be specific to the consumer — or patient, in this case.
In a way DeepWell seems to be set to intensify and capitalize on a trend that’s existed for a long time but has never gained mainstream acceptance. Games are far more often demonized in media as violent, addictive, time-wasters than allowed to be an ordinary and potentially beneficial hobby, like knitting or a book club. Wilson and Douglas hope that DeepWell will be part of a new wave of understanding of the power of media in our lives.
“It’s not just about our company and what we do, but how we interact with media in general,” Wilson said. “Games are just the most engaging because you have to focus on them, and you get out of the story in your head. The tools we’re building are all in the service of the magic that these creators are already tuned into.”
This week Darrell and Jordan talk with Real CEO and Founder, Ariela Safira. Real is a therapy platform that aims to make mental healthcare more accessible by offering group sessions and curriculums a user can engage with any time. While in college, Ariela had her first encounter with the mental health care system and realized that people were only seeking help for their mental health when they were in crisis. She then spent years studying the ways people seek care and how therapy could be more accessible and effective. In this conversation as they dive into everything from the research that lead her to found Real to religion to the merits of Goop. CW: suicide and attempted suicide.
Finding the right therapist is never an easy task, but it gets even harder when, as a person of color or someone with disabilities, there are few or no people sharing your experience available. Therify hopes to change that with a network of providers from and catering to marginalized populations.
“It just makes a ton of sense,” co-founder James Edward Murray told me. I felt the same way after seeing Murray pitch his company during Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 demo day. The problem is super simple: not everyone can find therapists they feel comfortable with, since the process of finding one isn’t particularly convenient to begin with, and when you add in some important personal preferences, it can be nigh impossible.
Murray, who is Black, said his instinct in looking for a therapist was to find a Black woman, like those who raised him and with whom he feels comfortable and vulnerable. But after accounting for other factors, like timing, availability, and therapeutic approach, he ended up with only a handful of options. It didn’t feel right to him that there should be so few people that shared his background available to him through the system he was working in.
“I talked with other people, co-workers of color, co-workers with disabilities… it became clear that there was a gap here,” he said — and he immediately got to work on filling it. “I didn’t originally want to start a business — I just had a Google form and was matching people, over a hundred, with culturally sensitive therapists. My company came to me and said, hey, can we build this into our benefits?
“That was when I thought, ‘hmmm…’ this has value.”
Murray teamed up with CTO Warren Sadler, who worked in machine learning in the health sector, after “begging” him to start the company together.
Therify essentially aggregates the supply of providers, usually those with large group practices, and who belong to or specialize in working with people who might find it hard to find a therapist like themselves.
“When I started the company, because I’m Black I wanted to serve my community, but as I started the work I saw that the opportunity is so much broader than that,” Murray said. “So we focused on anyone who feels underrepresented. It’s not just Black and Latinx employees, it’s Asian employees, it’s LGBTQ+ employees, veteran employees, everyone with marginalized identities.”
“So someone can log into Therify and say they focus on anxiety and CBT in LA, and are South Asian and understand the South Asian family experience,” he explained. “They understand your identity and particular experience — without that piece, it’s incomplete.”
Image Credits: Therify
Therify works with employee-provided benefits as a layer in between the users or members and covered providers, connecting people with specific needs or wants to therapists who can provide that. They also cover the first few sessions to ease the process of matching, and provide additional group formats to overcome obstacles felt particularly by some groups.
“Therapy is stigmatized in some communities,” Murray pointed out. “A group oriented format you can join anonymously, focused on overcoming imposter syndrome at work, or dealing with race-related trauma, it works in favor of people with marginalized communities who are super impacted by that stigma. It provides an alternative to actually going into a room for a one on one.”
Co-founders James Edward Murray (center) and Warren Sadler (right) with first employee Jessie Wooten (left).
Therify signed up hundreds of providers in the first six months, partly due to the company’s modern payment stack — therapists and other providers often have to wait weeks or months for payments, and as Murray pointed out many in marginalized communities work on a sliding scale as well, but Therify guarantees market rate and direct deposit.
Of course the huge digital shift in the therapy industry has helped make this possible. But companies are also realizing that this kind of benefit is an important aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, which helps with buy-in.
“Mental health is a DEI problem: employees from under-represented backgrounds are more likely to leave their jobs, to report mental health symptoms, to report work related mental health issues. It’s a leaky bucket,” Murray explained. “Companies are putting all this effort into DEI but not building the infrastructure needed not just to attract but to keep a diverse group of employees. I experienced this myself at Facebook, and I’m not the only one.”
The $1.3M seed round is led by SoftBank’s SB Opportunity Fund, Looking Glass Capital, Y Combinator of course, Flexport, True Culture Fund, and K5 Global, plus a raft of individual investors including former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao.
Murray said the money will power the buildout of Therify’s provider network and sales channels. In addition, the 18-month plan involves moving into Canada, Europe, and southeast Asia. That naturally involves a lot of legal and compliance work, but fortunately the product itself will translate fairly easily. Video call therapy has gone from niche to default and systems to support it are widely available — good news for a company hoping to scale globally.
As the company grows and serves more populations the hope is it will also serve those populations better. The more providers and customers join the system, the more easily and accurately it can match them together. Everybody should be able to get the kind of mental health treatment they deserve, and this is a step in the right direction to make sure that’s not just possible but easy and simple for all involved.
UK-based digital therapy company ieso announced a $53 million Series B round on Tuesday. The round is the funding the company needs to move in a brand new direction: creating more intuitive autonomous text therapy.
In other words, AI trained on thousands of hours of real-life therapy that can provide personalized sessions, over chat.
ieso has been around for about ten years, and has been running a text-only therapy service (with human therapists on one end) through the UK’s National Health Service. So far, the company has provided text-based therapy for about 80,000 patients – though 6,000 are actively receiving therapy, Nigel Pitchford, ieso’s CEO told TechCrunch. That’s a total of 460,000 hours of therapy so far.
“We’ll deliver some sort of 400 hours of therapy this evening, via our network,” said Pitchford.
This most recent round of funding was led by Morningside, with participation from Sony Innovation Fund. It also included existing investors IP Group, Molten Ventures and Ananda Impact Ventures
Ultimately, ieso is looking to take itself from a human-based therapist based system, to a scaled up autonomous system. The idea of A.I. based chat therapy isn’t exactly unique in this space (we’ve covered other companies pursuing this) but the data behind ieso’s approach is what the company sees as its secret sauce.
ieso’s “unfair advantage,” is ten years of real-life text-based conversations between patients and therapists, which Pitchford calls “transcripts of care.” That dataset is paired with real-time data on patient’s clinical outcomes, which the company has also been collecting alongside those transcripts.
“ieso has built one of the most impressive data assets I have seen in the space with their text therapy dataset,” said Stephen Bruso, an investment partner at Morningside. The dataset is one aspect of ieso he finds most attractive as an investor, and called it “unprecedented.”
This dataset has been used to track how certain therapeutic conversations or techniques are linked (or not linked) to patient improvement. And, there is some evidence ieso has managed to mine that data for insight. For example, the company published a paper in 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry analyzing 90,000 hours of therapy. The paper found that aspects of therapy like “planning for the future,” or certain cognitive behavioral therapy techniques were linked to better patient outcomes.
Overall, the data suggested that 28 minutes out of every hour of therapy contained conversations or exercises that “directly affected” the patient outcome, said Andy Blackford, the company’s group chief science and strategy officer.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the paper also found that therapeutic empathy was negatively associated with patient outcomes – though other research has suggested clients have better outcomes when they feel their therapists understand them. Blackford interpreted the empathy finding as evidence that empathy should be employed alongside other therapeutic techniques.
Ultimately, Pitchford sees this dataset, and analysis like the type conducted in that JAMA paper as a roadmap for how the A.I. based therapists will be trained and personalized.
“So essentially, we’ve been studying what the very best therapists are doing at a very high scale, and then reconstructing that, so it can reach people that are unable to access human psychotherapy delivery, which is a huge problem all over the world,” he said.
Even with this dataset, ieso does seem to be working in an increasingly crowded space. Funding for mental health startups is anticipated to crack $3 billion in 2021, per Q3 a Silicon Valley Bank Trend report. That means there are a lot of minds focused on the problems associated with traditional therapy right now.
Bruso sees ieso as one of the few mental health companies that can point to real-world health outcomes, at least using their own dataset.
“We believe that there is a unique synergy between ieso’s digital products built on real world data, and their ability to trial these products in their existing user base to generate outcomes data from day 1,” he said. “At the end of the day, the products that will last in the space will be those who can demonstrate a measurable impact on both individual health and societal outcomes.”
Blackford is also aware of how packed this space is – in fact, he sees it as a problem for consumers. These apps, ieso’s leadership figures, are often designed for either self-help, mindfulness, or patients with non-severe mental health diagnoses.
Though ieso can treat people with non-advanced mental health struggles, the company also has a focus on moderate-to-severe diagnoses. It’s not, to use his words, a “wellness solution” – and can be used by groups who might require more intensive care.
This focus means that safeguards for self-harm need to be especially strong. Blackford says the company has risk escalation protocols in place for its human-based therapy model that have been honed over the course of ten years as one of the largest mental health providers in the UK. The company has plans to incorporate those programs into the autonomous therapy product in the future.
Right now, Blackford doesn’t anticipate a harder regulatory path because it’s looking to deal with higher-stakes mental health diagnoses.
“The good thing is that there are precedents and predicates that we can use as we come to market. But the key thing will be about having, you know, demonstrably safe and effective products,” he said.
The high volume of data the company has already collected will allow it to collect insights into efficacy and safety “many times faster” than you’d expect under regular clinical trial circumstances, Blackford argued.
Going forwards, ieso plans to use this round to build out its A.I. based therapy arm, and shore up a presence in the US. The team is expected to grow to about 200 people by next year, which will set up a push to go to market over in the next two years.
Depression and anxiety were taking a serious toll on peoples’ well-being even before COVID-19, and the pandemic prompted more interest (and venture capital) in mental health startups. While many of the highest profile mental health startups, like Calm or Headspace Health, are based in the United States, more attention is also being paid to emotional wellness around the world. In Southeast Asia, for example, a growing list of startups is increasing access to mental healthcare and support. One of them, ThoughtFull, announced today it has raised $1.1 million USD in seed funding, which it says one of the largest seed rounds raised by a digital mental health startup in Southeast Asia so far.
Founded in 2019, ThoughtFull’s ThoughtFullChat app connects users to mental health professionals for coaching sessions or therapy, and also has self-guided tools. The startup’s app for mental health professionals, called ThoughtFullCare Pro, enables them to manage and scale their online practices. ThoughtFullChat is available for download through the App Store and Google Play, or through insurers and employee benefit programs.
Investors in its seed round include The Hive SEA, Boston-based Flybridge and Vulpes Investment Management, along with family offices and angel investors in the Asia Pacific region.
Before launching ThoughtFull, founder and chief executive officer Joan Low was an investment banker, including six years at J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong. Low told TechCrunch in an email that she felt compelled to leave finance after observing how difficult it was to access mental healthcare in Southeast Asia, compared to “the breakneck speed of digital mental health innovations happening places such as the U.S. and Europe where I have spent time living, working and studying.”
ThoughtFull’s main operating markets are Singapore and Malaysia, but it now has users in 43 countries. Its app, which launched in 2020, is available in five languages: English, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin and Cantonese, along with coaches who are also fluent in Tamil, Thai, Vietnamese and Tagalog.
Low said ThoughtFull works closely with local healthcare systems to ensure that its services are tailored to each market. For example, it will partner with The Hive Southeast Asia and Penjana Capital, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance, to digitize the country’s mental health ecosystem after the pandemic made access to care, including in-person consultations, more difficult.
“Healthcare systems are inherently complex given the various stakeholders, structures and outcomes that are involved. That said, healthcare in Asia is particularly intricate because of the diversity in not just culture, but also systems—from care delivery to payor and research models,” said Low. “This is why you see less of the foreign players coming into Asian healthcare in a big way as barriers to entry are high.”
Other apps in Southeast Asia that provide digital access to mental health professionals include Intellect, which also recently raise venture funding. Low said ThoughtFull differentiates from other mental health startups by focusing on end-to-end services, giving its users personalized preventative and curative options and creating “an entirely closed feedback loop for better quality mental healthcare delivery.”
ThoughtFull’s seed round will be used for product development, including deep tech developments and clinical research.
Intellect, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make mental health care more accessible in Asia, announced it has raised $2.2 million in pre-Series A funding. It is taking part in Y Combinator’s current batch, which will hold its Demo Day at the end of this month.
The round was led by returning investor Insignia Venture Partners and included participation from Y Combinator, XA Network and angel investors like Rainforest co-founder J.J. Chai; Prenetics and CircleDNA founder Danny Yeung; and Gilberto Gaeta, Google’s director of global HR operations.
This brings Intellect’s total funding since it launched a year ago to $3 million, including a seed round announced in December 2020 that was also led by Insignia.
Intellect offered two main product suites: a consumer app with self-guided programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, and a mental health benefits solution for employers with online therapy programs and telehealth services. The startup now claims more than 2.5 million app users, and 20 enterprise clients, including FoodPanda, Shopback, Carousell, Avery Dennison, Schroders and government agencies.
Founder and chief executive officer Theodoric Chew told TechCrunch that Intellect’s usage rate is higher than traditional EAP helpline solutions. On average, its mental health benefits solution sees about 20% to 45% engagement within three months after being adopted by companies with more than 5,000 employees.
In many Asian cultures, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health issues, but that has changed over the last year and a half as people continue to cope with the emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chew said. “From individuals, to companies, insurers and governments, all these different types of people and organizations are today prioritizing mental healthcare on an individual and organizational level in an extremely rapid manner.”
Intellect protects user privacy with zero-knowledge encryption, so the startup and employers don’t have access to people’s records or communications with their coaches and counsellors. Any insights shared with employers are aggregated and anonymized. Chew said the company is also compliant with major data privacy regulations like ISO, HIPAA and GDPR.
Intellect is currently collaborating in 10 studies with institutions like the National University of Singapore, King’s College London, University of Queensland and the Singapore General Hospital. It says studies so far have demonstrated improvements in mental well-being, stress levels and anxiety among its users.
The new funding will be used to expand into more Asian markets. Intellect currently covers 12 countries and 11 languages.
Therapy is rapidly becoming a standard part of many people’s lives, but 2020 interrupted that trend by nixing in-person sessions and forcing therapists to migrate their entire practice online — and it turns out that’s not so easy. Frame simplifies it with an all-in-one portal for clients and therapists, unifying the listings, tools, and management software that run the countless small businesses making up the industry.
Kendall Bird and Sage Grazer are old friends who happened to be in the right place at the right time — a strange thing to say about anyone anywhere at the start of 2020, but it’s true. The startup’s pitch of bringing your practice entirely online and offering all-online sessions, bookkeeping, scheduling and everything turned out to be exactly what would soon be needed — though as they tell it, it has actually been needed for some time.
Grazer, a therapist herself, experienced firsthand the unexpected difficulties of getting up and running.
“When I started my practice in 2016, I was really passionate about the clinical work, but I was very overwhelmed by setting up a business, marketing, financial stuff,” she said. “So we wanted to help other therapists through that.”
She and Bird happened to reconnect around that time and the two saw an opportunity to improve things.
Kendall Bird (left) and Sage Grazer. Image Credits: Frame
“We think about therapists as being a one-on-one thing, but they’re really a small business,” said Bird, who formerly worked in marketing at Snapchat, Google, and YouTube. “They’re under-served and under-supported as mental health professionals — they don’t have the back office support that doctors do, and they’re not trained how to run businesses. It just made sense to build a scalable SaaS solution that lets these people work for themselves.”
The therapy industry, like other medical institutions, has two sides: client-facing and practitioner-facing. While there are a handful of services online that combine these, many essentially recruit therapists as contractors. If you want to run your own practice, you’ll likely be using a combination of specialty scheduling, telehealth, billing and other tools made with medical privacy considerations in mind.
“The therapy tools and services landscape is incredibly fragmented — the average therapist is using 5-7 tools, and most of those are not built for therapy,” said Bird.
And then of course there’s Psychology Today: a periodical that straddles the roles of pop psych and industry rag, but whose chief reason for existing for many is its voluminous therapist listings, which dominate search and provide an overwhelming first stop for anyone looking to find one in their area. But for such a personal and consequential decision these brief listings don’t give wary potential clients the impression they’re making an informed choice.
“We wanted an experience that was more approachable, uses language that doesn’t feel overwhelming or pathologizing,” said Grazer. “There are people going to therapy feeling alone and confused, who don’t identify with a disorder or checking a check box.”
Image Credits: Frame
Frame eschews the over-simplified “scroll through therapists near your area code” with a short quiz — not a diagnosis or personality test but just a few basic questions — that winnows down your choices to a handful of local and appropriate therapists, with whom you can instantly set up free introductory video calls. If you find someone you like, the rest of the professional relationship takes place on Frame, though of course soon in-person sessions may return.
For those not quite ready to take the plunge, the company organizes livestreamed sessions between volunteers and therapists to show what a full hour of work might look like. (Whatever courage it may take to confront one’s issues in therapy, it surely takes even more to do so with an audience.)
On the therapist’s side, Frame is meant to be a one stop shop. Marketing and telehealth sessions are on there, as noted above, but so are things like scheduling, notes, billing, notifications, and so on, all tailored specifically to the needs of the industry. And while the shift to online services has been a long time coming, the company just happened to drop in just as the need went into overdrive.
Image Credits: Frame
“We built it before COVID ever existed — launched in March 2020 and had telehealth as an option, thinking ‘oh, well maybe some people will do this.’ The majority of therapists in America weren’t doing sessions online at the time… but after COVID they all are,” Bird said. “And they’re looking for these tools now because they’re seeing the rewards of running a lot of their business through telehealth.”
Many therapists are finding that after resisting the transition for years, they are encountering all kinds of benefits, explained Grazer. Like other industries, the flexibility inherent to shifting in-person meetings to virtual ones has been freeing and in some cases profitable. The change is here to stay.
The site is in a closed beta limited to a part of California at present, since therapists are limited to operating in-state and there are other regulations to consider, not to mention all the usual struggles of putting together a sprawling professional service. But the $3M funding round, led by Maven Ventures, will help fill out the product and move the company towards a larger audience. Sugar Capital, Struck Capital, Alpha Edison, and January Ventures participated in the raise.
The money is “almost exclusively going to engineering.” The goal is to open up the beta, expand to the rest of California, then move out to other states once they have the infrastructure to do so and have responded to feedback from the initial rollout.
“Sage and I are really aligned in the belief that the best way to make therapy more accessible to America is to support therapists,” said Bird.